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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tiger Mom

This spring, I couldn't escape the Tiger Mom in newspapers and the blogosphere. For those of you who missed the phenomenon, Tiger Mom was an Asian American woman (a.k.a. Amy Chua) who wrote a book about her mothering style, which fell just short of waterboarding her children if they paused for a bathroom break during their daily seven hour violin practice. I only read her essay in the Wall Street Journal, excerpted from her book. The essay evoked a loud outcry. While the mothering style Chua described in her essay struck me as harsh and counter productive, it did raise a basic question: Do Americans demand too little from their children?

For me, the answer is unquestionably, yes. I am not concerned with ensuring that every American child become a concert violinist, but I am entirely convinced that our public schools waste years of our children's lives, teaching them so little in school, especially middle school, that we stunt their intellectual growth. This is one of the reasons I would like to see school vouchers. Surely in large metropolitan areas there would be enough parents who believed that education was not merely an exercise in building self esteem to create a demand for strong schools. It is impossible to miss the extreme outperformance of home schooled children, covering subjects at twice the depth and range of public school students. Like Tiger Mom, home schooling parents I have known, respond to underperforming children by making them work harder. Yes, their child may not have a strong aptitude for mathematics, but instead of immediately surrendering and restricting the child to a diet of pablum math, they simply double down, increase the number of exercises until their child becomes competent. We all believe that exercise can make the 90 pound weakling a well muscled, albeit slight of stature 120 pounder, but we rarely admit the same opportunity for growth beyond our immediate limits in intellectual matters. I am not saying that it is worthwhile making all students learn calculus. Nor do I expect a career in mathematical sciences for the student who began life as the 90 pound weakling in mathematics. Nonetheless, giving up on the 90 pounders unnecessarily limits their intellectual growth. Limiting math limits science and economics. Imagine how much stronger our society would be if reporters knew enough basic mathematics to understand economics and the reality of our federal budgets.

While I agree with Chua that we demand too little of our children, I share the basic American fear of imposing my goals on my children. Perhaps in earlier societies, sons generally entered into their father's professions, but not in our country. I did not follow my father's profession, and I do not expect my children to follow mine. If, like Chua, I dictated my children's careers, they would gain the advantage of early preparation. I could have them ready for graduate level mathematics before they began college. On the other hand, they would lose the opportunity to discover their comparative advantage - the natural skills and inclinations which would lead them to outperform their peers in their chosen field, if they were allowed more freedom to explore and discover their strengths and intellectual loves. Every year I meet freshman upon freshman, children of Generic Tiger Mom, telling me that they love subject X or Y, but their parents require them to be premeds. Large number of these manage to underperform as premeds, until their parents release them to study a field which plays to their comparative advantage (or unfortunately, sometimes they never discover such a field).

In graduate school, I met numerous students who had been 'hot housed'. Some were taught advanced mathematics at a very young age, mastering calculus in fifth grade, and moving on to higher mathematics in middle school. None of these went on to successful careers in mathematics. Many, but not all, were emotionally or socially fractured. I know hot housing worked for Norbert Weiner and several other notable polymaths, but making such a choice for one's children seems a step too far to me. So, as in most aspects of life, there is a fundamental tension. Make our children work hard enough so that they can ultimately be good citizens and succeed at their choice of career, but don't push them to live our fantasies for us, breaking them in the process.

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